Q: What's the best way to avoid food poisoning? -- L.G., Aiken
A: The best course of action for fighting food poisoning is prevention.
According to the Nutrition Action Healthletter, about 2.5 million Americans get sick from food poisoning each year. The culprits include undercooked meat, dirty fruits and vegetables and spoiled eggs. Proper storage and preparation are essential to avoiding food poisoning.
Side effects of food poisoning include diarrhea, stomach cramps and vomiting. Severe cases may cause fever, rapid heart rate, numbness in the legs and fainting. Those with weak immune systems, children and the elderly are more susceptible to food poisoning.
Food-poisoning cases increase in summer as people venture outdoors for meals. When preparing for a picnic, pack perishables in the bottom of the cooler under as much ice as possible. Place the cooler in a shady spot out of direct sunlight to help keep the temperature down.
Cook meat thoroughly - to 160 degrees on the inside - to be safe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends using a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature.
Common forms of food poisoning include E. coli, listeria, campylobacter and salmonella. E. coli is most often found in undercooked ground beef; listeria is found in undercooked chicken and in some processed meats; campylobacter, a less-known bacteria, is found mostly in undercooked chicken; and salmonella can be found in milk, eggs, chicken and beef.
Save grocery shopping for the last of your daily errands to avoid spoiled food. In the store, separate raw meats and poultry in plastic bags so the juices do not contaminate your other foods.
Dietitian Joan Salge Blake recommends making the fruit and vegetable aisle the last stop when you shop. She also advises placing groceries inside your air-conditioned car rather than in the trunk.
Never leave food that requires refrigeration or freezing at room temperature for more than two hours and never for more than one hour in temperatures above 90 degrees.
When putting your groceries away, make plenty of space available for your fresh food. Discard lunch meats or vegetables that are more than one week old.
Overstuffed refrigerators don't operate efficiently, resulting in warm spots that can harbor bacteria. To help increase the circulation of cool air within the refrigerator, don't stack perishable foods on the shelves. Check your refrigerator temperature often and make sure it is set to 40 degrees. Freezers should be set at 0.
Perishable fruits and vegetables should be kept in the coolest, most humid section of the refrigerator. If you have a crisper drawer, place fruits and vegetables there.
The door is the warmest area of the refrigerator, and the summer heat will only increase that temperature. Do not store eggs in the door during the summer.
When preparing food, always wash your hands before and after handling foods. Always use clean cutting boards and utensils.
Defrost meats in the refrigerator, not on the counter or in the sink. Wash sponges and dish towels often to eliminate germs. Use antibacterial kitchen cleaners for countertops. Always wash fruits and vegetables before eating.
If you get food poisoning, report it as soon as possible to your local health department. Your report could save other lives.
If you have a question or would like additional information, please write to Shirley McIntosh, Resource Center on Aging, 2803 Wrightsboro Road, Suite 51, Augusta, GA 30909.